Qualcomm Toq smartwatch: Arrives in October, takes on competition with low-power reflective Mirasol display (hands-on)

Qualcomm Toq smartwatch: Arrives in October, takes on competition with low-power reflective Mirasol display (hands-on)

By | Sep 5, 2013

Smartwatches seem to be everywhere all of a sudden. Samsung’s got one. And Qualcomm has one, too, called the Toq. What can the Toq do to stand out from the crowd?

A reflective color Mirasol screen.

In what amounted to a surprise development, the Qualcomm Toq emerged at our offices a short while ago, and we got to get a little hands-on time with the upcoming watch. Qualcomm doesn’t have a track record of making its own gadgets, but the Toq is intended to be a smaller-scale gadget release when it’s available this fall.

Unlike possibly powerhouse watches like the Samsung Galaxy Gear, the Toq has a relatively low-power 200MHz Cortex M3 processor to extend battery life. The Mirasol display — a technology that’s been making the rounds for for years and was originally demonstrated in e-ink-style e-readers — sips power and can stay on without draining battery life, much like e-ink. It’s also highly reflective and can display color.

How is Mirasol on a watch? It looked pretty great in the office, producing a display quality better and more reflective than a Pebble, with a faster refresh rate than many e-readers. It’s not the type of display you’d want to use for rapid, complex animations, though. In more-direct light, it looked even better, but the color, while crisp, is a very different beast than something like OLED — it has a slightly iridescent tone, like anodized metal. Watch faces and icons popped. The Toq also has a backlight, in case you need it.

The Toq as a watch, however, is big: bigger than watches like the Pebble, but the wider display had some advantages. Reading calendar appointments, texts, and even e-mails seemed easier, with more text fitting on the screen. I’m not sure I’d use the Toq to read a novel, but I could see myself browsing tweets on it. The wristband’s pretty chunky, too: stylishly patterned, but adding to the Toq’s sense of size. The band needs to be specifically cut for the owner before use, though, an odd move for a smartwatch. The buckle houses the Toq’s battery, helping offset the size of the watch.

What the Toq can do is pretty similar to what other notfication-rich smartwatches already accomplish: screen incoming calls, get text messages, and hook into weather and e-mail. The Toq also receives detailed calendar data, stocks, and can act as a music-playback touch interface. Messaging will work using Qualcomm’s own AllJoyn technology. Apps exist on the Toq, but it’s meant to work while connected to an Android phone, where the Toq can receive pushed software and firmware updates. Theoretically the Toq could work via iOS, according to Qualcomm’s executives, but it’s being designed as an Android-exclusive device for now.

The Toq has a few other clever twists up its wristband besides its Mirasol display: a pair of wireless in-ear stereo Bluetooth earbuds are included to connect the whole package into a unified system, something that makes a lot of sense. Also, both the Toq watch and the earbuds wirelessly recharge via a bedside-table-friendly inductive case. Plug the case into Micro-USB and you’re set. It saves having to deal with an in-phone USB port or specialty cables like the Pebble uses, but it still requires carrying that case around.

The Toq will cost around $300 and is available for preorder now, with a targeted release of October 10, but Qualcomm only intends to sell “tens of thousands” of the device.

Instead, think of Toq like Google Glass: a hero prototype that actually works, but shows the way for future products using the technology. Qualcomm intends for Mirasol displays and low-power processors to be used by other smartwatch-maker hopefuls — possibly even mainstream watchmakers who want to go smart but don’t want to invent the tech themselves. That’s actually a smart idea, as long as the concept of a “smarter watch” doesn’t mean running aground on specialized software and services like those that sunk long-ago efforts like Fossil’s Palm watch and Microsoft’s SPOT watches.

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